Spring is just around the corner — and the timberdoodle is about to return. Timberdoodle, bog sucker, mud-snipe — these are many names for the American woodcock, a great bird to sneak up on. Yes, sneak up on!
The woodcock returns to the Northeast each spring. Males look for overgrown fields to do their song- and-dance routine. They sing a song that sounds like a squeaky toy “peent” and do a flying circle dance up high in the sky. All of this to show off to nearby females. Their way of saying “Check me out, I’m so good lookin’”. (Click here for a Youtube video of the song-and-dance routine)
The cool thing about this behavior is that you can play a great game of hide and sneak with the show-boating males. Get Mom and Dad or Gramps or Nanna to bring you to a nearby old field just around dusk. The mowed lawn of a schoolyard or park won’t do. If you can’t find a field near your house, come to the Arboretum. There are several old fields here that are fine.
In the spring the fields will be wet and muddy. Wear dark colored clothes — and boots. At the edge of the field, listen for the “peent” song and try to figure out where in the field the male is singing. After several “peents,” you’ll hear the flute-like whistling sounds as he takes flight. You might even see him silhouetted against the darkening sky.
While the bird is flying in a large circle high above you, walk carefully in the direction you heard him singing. No need to run. He’ll repeat his song and dance routine several times. The big trick is to stop and stay still before he starts to land. How will you know he’s starting to land? The flute-like flight sounds will change to a slower stuttering warbling. When you hear that change, stop and stand still. If there is a clump of tall plants nearby, hide near that. If you are hidden and stand still, the woodcock will repeat his “peenting” song several times before taking flight. When he does, continue your sneaking up.
If you are patient, and good at sneaking up, you’ll be able to get a few arm lengths away from him as he returns after each flight to do his song. If you are that close, you’ll hear him gulp some air that he’ll need to sing his song, just like when you take a breath to sing yourself.
George Steele is Nature Educator at Landis and a member of the Board of Trustees. He offers many workshops for children and families with children at the Arboretum, all of which are listed in the 2019 Calendar of Events.